Jan 1973; Unknown location, USA; FILE PHOTO; Miami Dolphins offensive players Mercury Morris (22), Larry Csonka (39) and Jim Kiick (21) sit on the bench during the 1972 season. Mandatory Credit: Tony Tomsic-USA TODAY NETWORK

Trying to compare eras in sports is a fool’s errand. So much has changed over the past 10 years, let alone five decades. The 1972 Miami Dolphins don’t have to worry about that because they remain incomparable. 

ESPN examines the NFL’s last undefeated team in its latest E:60 docuseries The Perfect Machine. Last month was the 50th anniversary of Miami’s Super Bowl VII victory. That Miami team has earned its place in history and even if a younger generation doesn’t know the players by name, they are well aware of the accomplishment. We’re reminded every season when the last undefeated NFL team loses. As legend has it, those Dolphins celebrate with champagne as their achievement remains unparalleled for another year.

But for many, 17-0 is all they know about the ’72 Dolphins. The Perfect Machine, produced and directed by Dan Lindberg, provides more details on what made that group of men so special. E:60’s Jeremy Schaap interviewed 17 living members of the squad, including Paul Warfield, Larry Csonka, Larry Little, Mercury Morris, and Bob Griese.

The Perfect Machine begins with a great anecdote told by defensive tackle Manny Fernandez. The story involves an alligator and coach Don Shula. Viewers will wish they could see Shula, who passed away in May 2020, react to the telling of that wonderful tale. Shula only appears in archival footage, but in current interviews his players paint a picture of a taskmaster and visionary.

Shula set the record for career wins, coached Miami to three straight Super Bowl trips and back-to-back championships. To be that successful, you have to establish a unifying culture. One of the best moments in The Perfect Machine is when the players describe Shula breaking down the team’s racial divide. Hearing about segregated accommodations and an imaginary Mason-Dixon line in the locker room remains jarring.

Shula’s attention to detail got the Dolphins to the Super Bowl in his second season. A humiliating 24–3 loss to the Dallas Cowboys set the stage for their 1972 season. The Perfect Machine gives insights into what went wrong and how the bitterness of defeat galvanized the franchise. Csonka provides perspective for that moment, recalling Shula’s postgame speech. Morris provides perspective for the start of training camp when Shula made the team watch the film of that Super Bowl loss. 

It’s always interesting to see different motivational techniques in sports. Shula gave his Dolphins the emotional fuel to carry the team through a 14-0 regular season (despite missing Griese for 9 games with a leg injury), and three playoff victories, culminating with a 14-7 Super Bowl triumph over Washington.

Younger viewers should find a lot of the details in The Perfect Machine fascinating. Last month, many fans were annoyed at the possibility of a neutral-site AFC Championship. Well, you might be shocked to learn the arbitrary reason why the undefeated Dolphins had to travel to the Pittsburgh Steelers for that AFC Championship. 

Super Bowl VII wasn’t a great game. The most famous play was Miami kicker Garo Yepremian’s ill-advised pass attempt after a blocked field goal which resulted in Mike Bass’ 49-yard fumble return for a touchdown to pull Washington within 14-7 in the fourth quarter. 

Miami’s margin of victory in the playoffs was only by a total of 17 points. But in the end, the Dolphins created a legacy that others have failed to match. The lasting image of this docuseries is when Csonka says: “Being the only undefeated team ever, that right there is the universe.”

The Perfect Machine doesn’t address the modern game. Today, it’s even more difficult to go unbeaten. The regular season is longer. The media attention is greater. And in the salary-cap era, rosters are thinner. The 2007 New England Patriots came the closest to being undefeated. If they couldn’t do it, maybe no team will.

Perfection is something to be celebrated, and The Perfect Machine shows us why.

The Perfect Machine premieres Sunday, Feb. 5 on ABC at noon, prior to the Pro Bowl Games. It’ll be available to stream on ESPN+ following its first airing.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.